Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Travels with a Donkey to Longitude

I've just been thinking back to the holidays and some summer reading done in anticipation of a trip to France. We were heading for a gite near the Cevennes, so Brigit said you MUST read Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson, and of course I said 'it's on my TBR list'.

So off the TBR list it had to come, and (to cheapskate reader's satisfaction) I realised that I had two copies, one inherited from the Scottish grandfather-in-law and one bought second-hand (from the excellent Helston Bookworm, I think), both of them with blue covers and gold lettering.

RLS made a walking tour of the Cevennes in the 1870s accompanied by a very reluctant donkey called Modestine to carry his pack and his home-made 'sleeping sack'. His account of trying to get the ambling and recalcitrant Modestine to move at all, let alone at any speed, nor to veer off the path to eat wayside grass and heather are very funny. Pitying locals provide him with various implements to 'encourage' her along, culminating in the most successful, a goad (basically a stick with a pin in the end of it) with which a by now heart-hardened RLS forces Modestine to shift: 'Thenceforward Modestine was my slave,' he finally declares triumphantly.

Stevenson's walk was extremely short compared with modern travel writers' long-haul treks across continents - less than two weeks. But he is a born writer who makes the mountain scenery and the humour of his experiences walking through it zing off the page:

'Why anyone should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints ... To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?'

Before reading this book, I was completely ignorant of the importance of the Cevennes hills as a refuge for the Protestant minority in eighteenth-century France, and so was surprised at how prominent a role religion plays in Stevenson's account. (His interest in the conflict may even have acted as a motivation for visiting the area in the first place.) RLS imaginatively recounts the persecutions and bloody skirmishes between the Protestant 'Camisards' and the Catholics. Wherever he goes, people ask about his religion and he asks them theirs, and there are frequent heated discussions. Unsurprisingly, when we walked in the Cevennes hills this summer, unaccompanied by either a willing or an unwilling donkey, no one at all asked about our religion. And disappointingly, I didn't see a single donkey, just one roadside sign offering donkey-rides (presumably without the benefit of goads).

As so often happens, reading one book leads me on to another because I come across a reference to my Favouritely Named Character from History, Sir Cloudesley Shovel, who was sent to the Mediterranean to bring aid to the besieged Camisards of the Cevennes. (Anything to spite the dastardly French.) Two years later, Shovel was the admiral whose ship was wrecked on the rocks of the foggy Isles of Scilly when he and his fellow navigators incorrectly calculated their longitude as being west of the Isle d'Ouessant off Brittany. According to Longitude by Dava Sobel, Shovel had discounted the opinion of one of his ordinary crew members who had correctly reckoned the ships' position as being near the Scillies and instead had him hanged for insubordination. Just two men from the four ships that went down survived. Sir Cloudesley himself was washed up alive on a beach but then was murdered for the emerald ring on his finger by a local woman. This famous disaster for the British fleet spurred on attempts to find a way to measure longitude accurately, which leads on to the story of John Harrison told in Longitude. But, typically, I still haven't read the whole book (the rest remains TBR).


  1. A nice reminder that old books still contain absolute gems and what a great passage to quote, to ...'travel for travel's sake.' A sentiment many travelers would share, the joy is often in the journey not the destination. I have read one of Sobel's book's, and found it was a great book to dip into, one chapter every now and then, it was the one on the planets. I think I must read Longitude.

  2. Sir Cloudesley Shovel was a real ass! Please excuse the awful joke. Longitude was a good read and one day I'll read another of hers.

  3. Ha Ha! Yes, wish I could have included (yet another bad) photo of a donkey to 'decorate' this post. Or maybe I should adopt one and then I could call it Cloudesley.

  4. Interesting story. Notice you've just started your book blog. I've just started too. Isn't it fun?